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Sean McManus is wearing two hats these days. As president of CBS Sports since 1996, he led the acquisition (and later renegotiation) by the network of broadcast rights to the NFL and extended its rights for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament and the PGA Tour. As the new president of CBS News, he takes on a dual role made famous at ABC in 1977 by Roone Arledge, with whom McManus’ father, legendary sports broadcaster Jim McKay, collaborated. That same year, McManus began his professional career at ABC Sports as a production assistant before moving to NBC two years later as associate producer and to Trans World International in 1987 as senior vice president.
McManus spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal New York bureau chief Jerry Kavanagh.
Sean McManus has worked in sports at ABC,
NBC and CBS, but it’s his move into news recently
that has generated headlines.
Education: B.A., English and history, Duke University, 1977
Favorite vacation spot: The Breakers in Palm Beach, and home with my family
Favorite piece of music: “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart and “Johnny B. Goode” by Chuck Berry. My daughter’s name is Maggie, and those are my kids’ favorite two songs.
Favorite author: Ernest Hemingway
Favorite quote: It’s by Winston Churchill, and it’s on my desk in both News and Sports: “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.”
Favorite sporting event: The Masters
Last book read: It’s going to sound like I’m making this up, but I’m not. It’s Bob Schieffer’s book, “This Just In.” And I just reread “Roone.”
Typical day off: The perfect day off for me is golf early in the morning with (CBS Sports Executive Vice President) Tony Petitti and the afternoon with my family.
Athlete you most enjoy watching: Tiger Woods when he’s on CBS
Best career decision: Probably in 1979 to leave ABC Sports, where I’d been given a great break because of who my father was, and go work for Don Ohlmeyer and Geoff Mason at NBC Sports, which was a little scary since I had grown up at ABC. But to make that move really enabled me to develop as Sean McManus and not as Jim McKay’s son.
Best advice you received: It was from my father, which is to be true to yourself and to be your own man. And if you do that and you’re talented enough, everything else will fall into place.
In 1977, ABC placed Roone Arledge, its top sports executive, in charge of its news division. But as Jacques Steinberg wrote in The New York Times, “Arledge operated in a time in which the networks did not have to contend with the defection of viewers to newer outlets, like Fox News and Yahoo.” What unique challenges does that additional competition present?
The competition, for the best anchorman, correspondents and personnel behind the camera, is intense. The competition for viewers is far more intense. In Roone’s day, the first opportunity most viewers had to watch national news was in the national news telecasts. Now, with Fox News Channel and CNN and MSNBC, anybody who wants to watch news 24 hours a day obviously can. So, the challenge is to put on a news program at 6:30 that not only gives the viewer a good summary of what happened in the day, but also presents an alternative to what not only the cable stations are doing but also what the other two networks are doing.
Of the time you spent with Arledge, you said, “I’d like to think some of his genius rubbed off on me.” What was his genius?
No. 1, he understood the importance of on-air talent and building stars, whether it was Peter Jennings, David Brinkley, Ted Koppel, Jim McKay or Howard Cosell. He understood how much of your identity really is placed in the people who are in front of the camera.
No. 2, he understood that all good television basically comes down to good storytelling.
McManus learned valuable lessons from his
father, legendary broadcaster Jim McKay.
How would you characterize your management style?
I would say I’m very involved in all aspects, whether it’s production or operations or business affairs or programming because I like all of those. I try to give the people who work for me a great deal of flexibility and liberty to do their jobs without interference, but I really want to be kept abreast of everything that is going on. I’m fiercely loyal to the people who work for me, but conversely expect just as much loyalty in return.
Talk a little about your father, Jim McKay.
I learned a lot of lessons from him also. First and foremost, when you’re on television, you can’t fool anybody. Your personality and whatever’s inside you comes out. … And he also firmly believed that he was not [part of] the story of an event he was covering, that the athletes and the competition were the story. You want to tell the story, you want to do your job well, but you want to get out of the way. He was great at doing that at the right times.
Your father went from sportscaster to newscaster without warning at the 1972 Olympics at Munich when terrorists seized and killed 11 Israeli Olympians. You were there at the time. What do you recall most vividly about that?
The surreal nature of being around a group of men I had watched produce television programs my entire life and, all of a sudden, this same group of men was producing one of the most dramatic and compelling news events in history, and the entire country was watching. I don’t think the magnitude of the event dawned on anybody until we got home a couple of weeks later and realized how big a story it was and how many people were completely reliant on my father and Roone’s production team for what happened that day.
How do you assess the state of broadcast journalism today?
The job that reporters are doing is generally exemplary. One of the dangers, more on cable certainly than on network, is that in an effort to draw ratings, intelligent dialogue, to a large extent, has been replaced by shouting. I love good debates, and I love opposite and divergent points of view being shared on television, but I think at times the rhetoric is dialed up too high just to attract more viewers.
You said, back in 1998, that “because television generates the lion’s share of income in most sports, sports have to balance adjusting themselves to become more attractive to television and maintaining the integrity of the sport.” How difficult has that been?
I don’t think it’s been difficult at all. I think the leagues have done a good job of accommodating television without compromising the competitive balance. I think the one issue that is probably most arguable is start times of games.
Everyone, it seems, cultivates a younger audience. Letterman had a top 10 list to attract younger viewers. Do you have your own list?
My primary goal is not to attract younger viewers to the “Evening News.” ... Trying to get the 18- to 34-year-olds to watch the “Evening News” is not a priority, and if it was, it would be an unrealistic priority. They just aren’t watching the news at 6:30. That’s not their viewing pattern. I’m trying to get a better share of the audience that is currently watching the three evening newscasts and, secondarily, if I can lower the average age and attract some younger viewers, I’ll be satisfied.